Lewis Hamilton delivered his best lap of the weekend to topple Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas and take a sensational pole position for the returning Portuguese Grand Prix.
The reigning world champion was second-best to Bottas through all three practice sessions and the first two segments of qualifying, and was slower after the first runs in Q3 at Portimao.
Mercedes changed strategy for the final runs, swapping over to the medium tyres on both cars. However, Hamilton opted to head out early to squeeze in two flying laps on that compound, while Bottas went for one.
The Finn beat Hamilton with his lap, but the Briton had one more lap in his pocket, and he made it count to take his 97th career pole position, relegating Bottas to second spot, in an all-Mercedes front row.
Max Verstappen took up his now customary position of third on the soft tyres, impressively only one-and-a-half tenths adrift of the Silver Arrows, while Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc delivered one of his best laps of the year to go fourth.
Racing Point’s Sergio Perez was an impressive fifth, one place ahead of Alex Albon, half a second slower than Red Bull team mate Verstappen, while Carlos Sainz won the battle of the McLarens but only just with 0.005s separating him from Lando Norris.
Pierre Gasly ended up a strong ninth, getting the better of his AlphaTauri teammate once more, with Daniel Ricciardo completing the top 10, albeit without setting a timed lap having run off track at the end of Q2.
Qualifying was delayed by 30 minutes as repairs were carried out on a handful of drains around the race track, one of which was dislodged by Vettel during final practice on Saturday morning.
With those complete, most of the field wasted no time in heading out on track to crack on, with the Mercedes duo waiting for a few minutes before leaving the comfort of their garage.
Bottas followed up his FP3 pace-setting time with top spot on his first attempt, which included a slide in Turn 13, with Hamilton backing out of his first lap – with traffic a real issue – and then going second with his next tour.
Hamilton and Verstappen opted to do cool down laps before going again for another push lap, with Hamilton improving to go quickest, just 0.050s ahead of Verstappen, the duo both having down six laps on their respective sets of softs.
Vettel gave himself lots to do, after having a time deleted for exceeding track limits, but did what was required on his final run, jumping up to eighth. Russell impressed, too, with his final flyer, leaping out of the drop zone to get through in P15, 0.8s quicker than Williams team mate Nicholas Latifi.
Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi, Haas duo Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen plus Latifi were kicked out, the former 0.25s adrift.
Knocked out: Raikkonen, Giovinazzi, Grosjean, Magnussen, Latifi
Bottas kept his grip on top spot once again as Hamilton appeared to be baulked by Vettel, forcing him to back off and go once more. That next lap was easily good enough for second, albeit it three tenths of a second adrift of his team mate.
Impressively, they eased to those times on the medium tyres with only Ferrari following suit with that strategy. Leclerc did a stunning job, to get through on that rubber, which gives him a great strategic option for Sunday’s race. His team mate Sebastian Vettel didn’t make it work though, ending up 15th, one place behind the Williams of George Russell.
Esteban Ocon backed out of his final lap to get knocked out in 11th, one place behind Renault team mate Daniel Ricciardo who made it through despite a spin into the gravel – which he recovered – in the closing stages of the session.
Racing Point’s Lance Stroll, returning having missed the Eifel Grand Prix with Covid 19, and the AlphaTauri of Daniil Kvyat were the other two drivers to take an early bath.
Knocked out: Ocon, Stroll, Kvyat, Russell, Vettel
It was as you were at the start of Q3, with Bottas going quickest by just half a tenth of a second from Hamilton, with Verstappen just a tenth slower in third, setting up a tantalising battle for pole position.
Mercedes then delivered a shock by heading out on the mediums, rather than the softs, for their final runs, the Silver Arrows feeling that compound is quicker in the current conditions. Albon headed out on the same rubber, too.
Hamilton used the new boots well to go quickest, by half a tenth of a second, but Bottas kept his head, setting purple times in the first two sectors and finishing off with a personal best to go quickest of all.
But Hamilton had left the garage early, allowing him to do two flying laps on the medium tyres, and that made the difference as the six-time world champion was able to improve again, doing enough to take pole – his ninth of 2020.
This was Mercedes’ 13th consecutive pole position, the sixth longest streak of all time with Williams leading the way with 24 across 1992 and 1993, while Bottas’ defeat comes after he was quickest in every practice session leading up to qualifying.
Leclerc starts fourth for the second consecutive race, the Monegasque outqualifying Vettel for the ninth consecutive race.
The Portuguese Grand Prix kicks off at 13:10 local time tomorrow. Can Bottas find a way through Hamilton’s defences or will the six-time world champion take his 92nd F1 victory – and the all-time record – at Portimao?